STRONG female characters, Mary Sues and Manic Pixie Dream Girls… What the Heck is up with Female Characters in Books!?

thoughts orangutan

Hello all! So as you guys may know I was reading Kingdom of Ash recently. As the final book in a l-o-n-g series, you’d expect there to be some changes from the original works, and that’s fair enough. But there was one tiny issue that bugged me: most of the female characters had become warriors (though #notall). Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good kickass heroine and I didn’t by any stretch of the imagination dislike this book. Yet there were two things that struck me with this decision: a) Celaena, as she was originally known, stood out less than she had in previous books (where she’d been an exception to the rule in a world where there seemed to be few female fighters) and b) it kind of leans in to the idea that women *have to* be more masculine in order to be considered strong women.

Time and again, I’m finding that female characters are being type cast into the “strong” role of warrior. And it doesn’t seem to just be one character- it’s got to be the bulk of them. Regardless of whether the author wants to dress up this character in girly clothes and makeup, I don’t think there’s any denying the fact that their heroism predominately comes from their ability to kick ass and not their penchant for applying lipstick. Often it feels shoehorned in and doesn’t seem to be a necessary part of the character (like Clary in Mortal Instruments, who already had killer powers). It also doesn’t seem to matter if the world obeys the laws of earthly biology or not- it seems to be something we have to accept the predominance of the warrior woman in the large bulk of genre fiction (especially fantasy/sci fi, but even in historical fiction as well). Unfortunately this mentality seems to bleed into real life- I can’t tell you how many times (mostly male/female feminists) have criticised me for not being physically strong. Because, in case you didn’t know, I’m a regular girly monkey who doesn’t have the superhuman ability to kick butt.

orangutan in dress

Guess I’ll just use any excuse to get dressed up 😉

Evidently, I’m not crazy about this trend for many reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Buffy growing up and like the occasional Wonder Woman style heroine. I also think this can really work in the fantasy genre- such as with characters like Nona from Red Sister, who come across as representations of shadow and myth. HOWEVER, I don’t recall it being the case that these were the *main* and *only* kind of female characters. Even when it came to Buffy, there were a bunch of other roles fulfilled by female characters. And thank goodness for that- because Buffy wasn’t the character I gravitated towards anyway! I’ll let you in on a not-so-surreptitiously held secret: I always identified the most with adorkable-brainy-oddball Willow- cos that’s who I found relatable. And this is a bit of a trend for me. While Tamora Pierce is famous for her Lioness character, I fell in love with Daine from Wild Magic. I adored the heroines in books by Eva Ibbotson- who never went raging to war but were fearless nonetheless. And I know that a few of the heroines in Game of Thrones fall into this super strong type- yet I love the series because it plays with every type it introduces and never presents a singular view of people.

A lot of the reasons this arose in the first place was a desire to challenge the status quo, to create something different and be appealing to a wider audience. And yet it’s not relatable; and somehow it has become a type. Regardless of whether they wear dresses or not, this STRONG female character is close to becoming a caricature just like any other irritatingly unrealistic representation. Many might have heard of terms like Mary Sue and Manic Pixie Dream girls getting (over)used all over the internet. What I understand about people that have problems with both of these, is that it’s irritating to see so many poorly conceived female characters. Naturally, these don’t simply apply to female characters- there’s always the people who shout “sexist” first and ask questions later (fyi for all those offended by the term Mary Sue, Marty Stus are a thing as well). And of course sometimes the criticism can be unearned- such as the infamous example of 500 Days of Summer using the Manic Pixie Dream girl trope… when it’s actually a deconstruction of that idea. Also, naturally, as in the case of unfinished or contentious works, these terms can be open to debate (as much as I’d like to insist that Rae from Star Wars is 100% a Mary Sue). So, whether in reading or writing, I think it’s good to be careful how we apply these terms- because boy is it frustrating to see characters reduced to nothing more than a trope.

If I was a lonely voice in the crowd, one could say I was a random butthurt woman (or “wahmen” 😉 ) blowing things out of proportion. Yet, I don’t seem to be the only one who thinks this way. In recent years, I’ve seen amazing articles from fellow readers like the lovely Kelly over at Another Book in the Wall, and videos from the likes of the Authentic Observer and even Jordan Harvey on similar topics. I know there are so many more- so forgive me if I left any obvious ones out. Point is: perhaps the zeitgeist of public opinion is changing. Maybe, just maybe when people were crying out for different types of female characters, they weren’t looking to be type-cast into yet another role. All I have ever wanted in fiction is believable, interesting and realistic characters. Wielding a sword is optional.

lagertha fighting.gif

Hope you didn’t mind my somewhat rambly thoughts- I just wanted to get all this off my chest. What do you think about this trend? How do you like your female characters? Let me know in the comments!

Advertisements

The Exciting Prospect of Failure

am writing.png

Hello all! Hope you’re having a great Sunday! I just wanted to do a quick personal post today where I talk about how my not-quite-Nano writing month went. Despite my title, I didn’t actually fail with my goal this year. In fact, I exceeded it. I managed to do 10/12 of my planned chapters- and even polished off another chapter yesterday… which brought my WIP to (hopefully) an explosive end.

happy-runningTo give this WIP a little background, it’s taken 8 years since I came up with the idea to come to this point where I now feel like I have a complete story. To put that in context of what it means to me, well, this is not only the last book in a trilogy, but also my sixth manuscript to date. So as you can imagine I’m feeling a lot of *feels* right now: liable to burst out in a happy dance at any moment, mildly shell shocked (that finale was not sunshine and rainbows and kittens, in case you’re wondering), but mostly optimistically nervous about what comes next.

Because, of course, it’s not over. As you’d expect from a first draft, there’s quite a way to go- fragments of the story I forgot to tell and new bits of the narrative to articulate. Before I started on this book, I knew there were issues with the series I wanted to tease out, but while I was writing I discovered sneaky little plot points that really needed my immediate attention. But I couldn’t exactly turn around and fix them- I knew I had to finish what I’d started first.

train crashIt’s an interesting experience to know that you’re working on something that’s gonna need an overhaul. Especially as a compulsive editor like me. Usually flaws like these would make me want to stop what I’m doing there and then. I’m certainly no stranger to hacking away at a manuscript until it feels a little closer to right. But this was like deliberately driving a runaway train into a ravine- with one eye on the prize and one gazing wistfully back at the start and knowing it could all be somewhat more spectacular (and yes, the runaway train metaphor is definitely what I’m  going for- my characters are total trainwrecks and the outcome of their actions is a complete disaster 😉 ).

The strange part of all this was that- even though I knew I was writing something that would inevitably have to change- I wasn’t deterred or put off. In fact, the prospect motivated me. Last year I talked a little about how failing is when you learn the most– and this year I realised it’s more than that. It’s the mistakes that keep you going. I’m looking forward to rectifying all the kinks and details I got wrong and I can’t wait to implement all the thrilling modifications I’ve come up with. Striving for something better is what keeps me on the edge of my seat when it comes to this story; it’s what makes me want to forge ahead with all the new ideas I have for the future. That’s just one of the great things about writing I guess: there’s always something new to explore, even in old worlds. Although, I’ll admit, right now I’m going to shove said manuscript in a drawer and not think about it (much) for about a month.

And that, folks, is a wrap! So did you participate in Nano this month or in years gone by? And if you write, what gets you motivated to write more? Let me know in the comments!

For Goodness Sake: Stop Blaming the Consumer!

thoughts orangutan

So way back in the summer, I saw an article that kind of bugged me. The gist of the piece was that author Howard Jacobson believed that when it came down to literary fiction sales “the problem is the reader”. His argument essentially boiled down to blaming limited attention spans and the consequent need to coerce readers to try more “serious” works.

Aside from the blatant genre snobbery, it will probably come as no surprise that I don’t believe Jacobson is on the right track. Saying that the “novel is in good health” doesn’t make it so. At random I can take a popular genre author like Steven King or Sarah J Maas, have a peek at their ratings on Goodreads and find it’s usually above 3.5 (often above 4 and as high as 4.69 for Maas), whereas a literary author like Jacobson will typically get below 3.5 (some as low as 2.67 at the time of writing). Now ratings aren’t everything, but this doesn’t bode well, especially when you consider the downward trend of sales. One can fairly deduce that people buying the books aren’t satisfied and won’t be repeat readers- which creates an unsustainable business model and suggests a deeper flaw with literary fiction. Remember, these were the people that invested time and money into the book, ergo don’t classify as the so-called lazy readers that won’t touch the stuff (those that might have “lazily” researched the book, its ratings and reviews, and decided they’d rather waste their time with a hefty tome that seems to be doing better).

read-fast

Moreover, the article largely overlooks some vital information. Evidence is that people are reading more, not less (opinions are varied on this, but for instance, this helpful infographic for the US shows how reading was looking like a pretty healthy habit in 2017). We also live in a world where more people are educated than ever before (again, a complex issue, but we’re generally looking at an upward trend in literacy rates). Challenging books, like classics, continue to be explored in the classroom (though of course, this could be promoted further). And, contrary to what genre snobs believe, plenty of books that are not literary fiction involve complex settings, concepts and characters (it seems daft to claim genre superiority in the face of fantasy/sci fi/dystopia, where a great deal of thought has gone into constructing an entire world from scratch). I also disagree with the idea wholeheartedly that a book has to be hard to read (or as Jacobson says “If you read me, you’re going to want to put me down”) in order to be worthwhile. There’s no reason why compulsive reading and concentration cannot go hand in hand. I personally found War and Peace quite the page turner.

Clearly, I think there are other issues at play (aka a flaw with the books themselves), however my problems with the article goes beyond that. Increasingly, I see this trend of “oh you don’t like such-and-such, you must be an *insert insult*” on the rise everywhere. Most notably, it’s taken the big and small screen sectors by storm. Don’t like the new Doctor Who? You must be sexist! Not a fan of the direction Star Wars has taken? BIGOT! While naturally you’re entitled to your own opinions on this and at the risk of starting a FLAME-THROWING-RAGE-FEST in the comments, I am not a fan of what has been done to these franchises- which apparently makes me evil or whatever. Lest we forget:

everyone i don't like is hitler

Now, being the sort of person that will just take my attention and money somewhere else, my opinion shouldn’t really matter all that much. BUT there’s something that has been done with these franchises that pisses me off no end- the fact that a lot of these constant attacks on the consumer are coming from the creators themselves. It’s almost becoming expected for there to be many, many hit pieces on fans from journalists and creators alike. Squabbles among fans are one thing; creators bashing their audience are another. I shouldn’t have to point out why this is a dumb idea- BECAUSE DUH! Why on earth OR in a galaxy far far away would anyone think it’s a good idea to go after the people with the wallets?! This not only makes the creator seem arrogant and out of touch, it seems delusional to me to expect people you’re bashing to part with their money. At the same time, it comes across as an abuse of power- using their position to “punch down” at those they ironically believe they’re punching up at (because yes, an actor/writer/producer/director in Hollywood has more power than your average Joe Schmo on twitter- a fact they simultaneously revel in and contradict with claims about power dynamics… *facepalm*).

star wars facepalm.gif

So to return to the original premise of this post: readers are not the problem, out of touch creators are. It doesn’t really matter if Jacobson believes people are too stupid and lazy to his read his books- it matters that any author would be foolish enough to think patronising their potential audience is the way to go. Not only will this not boost sales, it will alienate them for a lifetime. Literary fiction’s lack of popularity can be explained by an authorship that would hold haughty opinions such as these. If these are the kinds of people writing the books, no wonder people don’t want to read them. This unrelatability and pretentiousness might simply be translating into the work and distance the reader from it.

This of course is speculation- I wouldn’t presume to suggest this is the case with all literary fiction and am not trying to tarnish any other writers here. My point is that this attack on readership will not get anyone anywhere. I hate the spread of hostility towards consumers in general and really don’t want to see it infesting into the bookish world. As a reviewer, I’m used to people taking issue with the concepts of reviews– yet upping the ante to critique all readers that don’t engage with/like your work is far worse. I recently discovered a great piece of advice over on Alex’s blog which tied in nicely- consider following Franzen’s rule instead:

“The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.”

So do you agree or disagree? Are readers the problem? Let me know in the comments!

Why can’t characters just be evil?

thoughts orangutan

In recent years, there’s been a concerted effort made to humanise evil. Through the rise of anti-hero stories, we seem to put violence on a pedestal, to worship the wicked and praise perversion… Or do we?

nearly got everything peaky blindersYes, there has been more and more of an interest in anti-heroes of late- but when we explore these topics, like in the spate of gangster stories we put on our screens, we still are fully aware that these characters are doing bad things. Indeed, it’s almost written into the formula- if the protagonist seems to be reluctant to engage in misdemeanours, the writers shake up their lives, throw them for a loop and *bam* they’re committing atrocities again. We know full well they’re the bad guy in the story- anti-heroes are just villains in the role of the hero after all- and we’re on board with that.

So does this mean we think evil doesn’t exist? Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but it’s like I said, we’re conscious of this character’s role in the story. Indeed, I’ve often been disappointed by an anti-heroes that fail to do their job properly. Take the example of Maleficent. Now, I’ve got nothing against the film and I get it was made for kids, yet many will agree that it fell short of the mark- chiefly for failing to make the villainess truly malevolent. It’s very notable that the biggest change from Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty is that she doesn’t want to kill the girl here, only send her into a cursed sleep. And it was this reluctance by the writers for her to go fully dark that meant this unforgettable villain lost her menace and consequently michael corleone godfatherthat the message revolving round the impact of human cruelty was never properly realised. For me, it would have succeeded if it had got the Michael Corleone balancing act from the Godfather right- sure, make the protagonist  understandable, but don’t lose sight of the fact they’re the bad guy!

aslanThe fact we want them to fully realise that core of evil isn’t to provoke chaos in the real world– no, it’s to identify something far deeper than that. You see, there aren’t many “perfect” characters in the history of literature– well apart from lion Jesus 😉 . Even in the biblical tradition, particularly in the Old Testament, people make errors all the time. Why? Because if the cast of the Bible was littered with only perfect people, there would be nothing to aspire to and no mistakes to learn from. We are drawn to complexity. No character can be wholly good, just as no character can be entirely evil.

And this is why we love anti-heroes so much. It’s not because we reject the idea that evil exists. It’s because we get that we have a lot to learn. And sometimes you can learn things from the dark side- the clinical psychologist Dr Peterson often points out that we have to incorporate a little bit of our inner monster in order to succeed: 1) because it’s not heroic to be weak and 2) because we have to be in control of our inner luke skywalkermonster in order to overcome it. That’s why the hero is so often the person that mirrors the villain- they’re the one with the power to defeat the darkness, BUT like Luke Skywalker, they show restraint when it comes to the fight. A hero isn’t someone who’s never tempted- it’s someone who overcomes that temptation. Still- and here’s the kicker- how are we supposed to overcome that inner demon if we don’t understand it? That’s where anti-hero stories come in.

maleficentTo go back to Maleficent, it’s all about trying to puzzle out the causes of evil. Where there was scope in the original was that we didn’t know why the character was evil. While terrifying, Sleeping Beauty Maleficent was never fully developed in terms of what the hell were her motives anyway. Thus here’s the part of the new movie that worked- underneath all her awesome aesthetic, there had to be that pinprick of goodness or she’d continue to come across as a cartoon villain. And, of course, that’s fine- but I think most of us crave a little more complexity.

So I think the real reason a character can’t just be evil is that our hearts rebel against the notion. We barely believe in the Aslans of literature as it is (being lion-Jesus is a little unattainable 😉 ). In the same way a character can’t just be good, we need villains to have a little humanity to work. We’re all a little bit of both after all.

Well, my thoughts got a little rambly there, but what do you think? Where should the line between good and evil be in books? Let me know in the comments!

What I Look For in a Villain!

thoughts orangutan

Hello again! I’m back with one of my favourite topics… BAD GUYS! Specifically what I look for in a villain. Now, if you’re expecting a list like: tall, dark, handsome, brooding… prepare to be disappointed. What I look for in a villain is slightly more complex than the surface level stuff. I’m not going to be addressing things like the paraphernalia, names, or aesthetics- that’s not what draws me in or makes my heartbeat quicken. No, I’m after something  a little more elusive, like…

peaky blindersA great plan– I love me a clever baddie. So whatever they’re planning to do can’t be easily undone by a teenager (usually one who can’t even figure out which love interest is more appealing to them, let alone save the world) doing something really simple (like pressing a big red button that says STOP EVIL GENIUS). Plus, whatever this dastardly plot is, it has to make sense. So they definitely have to have…

dr evil laughing.gifAppropriate motivation– this underpins whatever they’re trying to achieve and without a “good” goal, they’re never going to hit the target. None of that “so why do you want to destroy the world?” “Because!” When I was younger I read a lot of the Alex Rider books and could never quite understand why every. single. villain wanted to *blow everything up* just for shits and giggles. Otherwise they’re going to be textbook, moustache twirling villains. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some explosive individuals out there, yet a) they’re not always the most compelling villains and b) it has to make sense for this particular character (eg it won’t necessarily make sense for a billionaire, largely motivated by money and control, to set the world ablaze). This doesn’t mean that their backstory has to be a justification, but that it has to line up with what they want to achieve. Which leads me onto…

pondering pinky and the brainPsychology that makes sense– now I will say that I am in no way an expert when it comes to psychology- it’s just an interest I have. And I do think about the baddie’s motivating factors in relation to books like Baumeister’s Evil and like looking into interesting. This doesn’t mean that the bad guy’s dreams have to be overtly destructive- we’ve all heard the idea that the villain should be the hero of their own story-yet that doesn’t mean they have to be honest with themselves. I’m often drawn to theories that suggest evil people can have sinister goals buried deep in their psyche (there is an argument by Dr Peterson, for instance, that Hitler may have claimed to want to build a thousand year Reich, and yet every action he took led to catastrophic destruction- so what’s to say that when he was sitting in his bunker with all of Europe burning above him he hadn’t got *exactly* what he wanted deep down?). Regardless, if what’s going on inside the bad guy’s head doesn’t add up or seems totally illogical, then it’s very noticeable. Speaking of human monsters…

darth vader humanA human being… gone wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not adverse to *generic monstrous evil* all the time- however I’m never particularly drawn to it either. Manmade evil feels more authentic than the detached *evil force*. Seeing the villain as a *person* can make them feel more sinister, since we can see ourselves reflected back in their seductively relatable ways. And there’s nothing more terrifying than that.

i see you sauronOf course, they also must be SCARY! Without being a true threat, they can hardly be the driving force of the novel. And, unless it’s parody, people in the book have to be scared of what they’ll do. So that means they actually have to DO SOMETHING. Preferably something truly malicious…

alan rickman cut your heart out with a spoonBecause, yeah, I’m looking for someone NASTY. I’m really not someone who cares about what the baddie looks like- whether they’re ugly or stunning doesn’t matter to me- it’s what’s inside that counts. And what’s inside has to be *horrible*. Villains need plenty of flaws. Some of the best ones for a bad guy are resentment, arrogance and jealousy. Even if they’re appealing externally, they need to have some traits that are off-putting. That’s why liars work for me too- the best manipulators learn to hide their faults. This certainly helps to make them less than straightforward.

sad thanosIn fact, it’s brilliant if they have some *major doubts*. Or a soft side. Even if they’re perfectly malevolent, like Thanos, pitting children against each other to create the perfect murderers, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a good side and, you know, care.

 

I'll help you kiara and zira lion king 2This naturally lends itself to the possibility for REDEMPTION. Now, I’ll admit I can be a sucker for a well-told redemption arc. For me, the best stories have a hopeful side, with the chance for turning back always being on the table- that’s why I love Star Wars. At its core, the original story was always that good guys can go over to the dark side OR come back to the light. This doesn’t necessarily = forgiveness, mind. My major caveat in a story like this, especially when you have a genocidal maniac for a villain, like, say, Darth Vader, is that they don’t get to go off happily into the sunset at the end of it. Harsh as it is, they pretty much have to sign their death warrant when this type of story comes to an end.

choicesFor that sort of story to work, the evil character has to have some agency. One thing that bugs me about a lot of stories lately is the desire to take away the villain’s free will. For instance, spoilers abound particularly in Falling Kingdoms, Gaius taking a magic potion to be evil or in Throne of Glass where the king was possessed all along (though in Maas’ defence she makes possession work well for Dorian’s character). As horrible as it is, evil does exist and it’s nearly always a matter of free will. Some henchmen can have limited choices, but the driving force of the story has to have the power to make up their own mind.

harley quinnWhat can also work particularly well is if they’re chaotic and unpredictable. While not totally necessary, I do think it can be the greatest cause for a plot twist if the villain did something no one expected. Again, this comes back to them being vaguely competent as a villain and having an intimidating presence, but they should be able to outwit the hero at some point.

loki and thorAnother favourite is for them to have a personal relationship with the hero. To go back to the Marvel universe again (because they do this so well) what makes for an interesting adversary is if they are closely connected to the hero. So, Loki for Thor, Killgrave for Black Panther, Ultron for Iron Man etc. These villains work so well because they are practically handpicked for the good guy to overcome. Which brings me to…

harry vs voldemortHaving parallels with the heroI seem to go on about this every week now, cos it works so well, but having a similar backstory can work brilliantly. That’s why it’s so significant that Harry, Voldy and Snape’s all have tragic pasts- because they have to make different decisions. And that is the only thing that separates them from each other. It’s a powerful tool and works exceptionally well when it comes to forming a fantastic antagonist.

So that’s all for now! What do you think? Do you find any of these traits appealing? And what do you personally look for in a villain? Let me know in the comments!

Unreliable Narrators – Differences in Style #6

style orangutan logo

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts (literally 4 months guys!) so some of you might have forgotten what they’re about or maybe they’re completely new to you. Basically, I love to chat about different writing styles and encourage people to view alternative styles as something that may appeal to different tastes (instead of seeing them as inherently “good” or “bad”). If you’d like to see more of my posts in this series, feel free to check these out:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence – Differences in Style #4

Telling Vs Showing – Differences in Style #5

All that said, today’s post is going to be a little different. Because, given how prominent this technique is in certain genres, I thought that this was a perfect opportunity to get in some good recs for Halloween. So for a change, this post is going to (mostly) focus on creepy characters and unsettling reads. Tis the season for some spookiness, after all 😉

Unreliable Narrators Defined

the-odysseyUnreliable narrators are those that can’t (or won’t) tell story objectively. The term is a relatively new one, as it was coined by Booth in 1961, however the use of such a character actually extends back to the dawn of Western literature. The lord of lies himself, Odysseus, is a great example of a character whose overinflated ego causes him to exaggerate and expand upon his exploits. Little character flaws can be used to manipulate the narrative and distance the reader from the truth of the tale.

gone-girl-PBSince the evolution of the term, much work has been done in the literary criticism world to explore this technique. This is why unreliable narration works so well. Types of unreliable narrators have been classified by the likes of William Riggan ie in his work: Pícaros, madmen, naïfs, and clowns (Picaros = boasters, naifs = immature narratures). One way I like to divide it up is into the fault of the narrator and the narrator merely being a victim of circumstance. If we look at a book like Gone Girl, we have two unreliable narrators creating a toxic environment for themselves and consequently causing the drama in their lives (which becomes the plot). On the other end of the spectrum, there are narrators like Pi in The Life of Pi, who, through no fault of their own, experience a severely traumatic event and slant the narrative through that perspective.

stolenNow, for the most part, this centres on first person narration- though there are rare occasions when it could be used for second or third person. The best example of a second person narration where the story is told through an unreliable lens is Stolen, where the narrator addresses her kidnapper and it’s increasingly clear has some form of Stockholm syndrome. Otherwise, unreliable narrators can incorporate some second person to break the fourth wall, such as in Notes from the Underground. Unreliable third person narration is a little trickier to pull off- because the author really has to pull a fast one on their readership. a_monster_callsThis would be something like a twist akin to a Sixth Sense where spoiler alert Bruce Willis’ character is a ghost all along. I rarely see this sort of thing in books, but one example I’ve seen lately was in Safe Haven where, again spoiler alert, her friend was a ghost all along. This part of the book didn’t actually work so well for me, because frankly it felt like too much of a curveball. Yet arguably books like A Monster Calls, though more ambiguous in whether they’re unreliable or not, could be a more positive example of how third person unreliable narration in action.

Like I said, there’s been a lot of research into this area, so there’s more I could say on this definitions-wise, yet I think some of those subject fit more into the…

Pros:

(and what you’re here for- the examples! No spoilers except to say that there are unreliable narrators present)

EnglebyMost obviously, unreliable narration is perfect for creating bold plot twists. There’s a reason why it’s very popular in thrillers, for example. A favourite of mine will always be Engleby (a book that’s seriously underrated nowadays) where the clever characterisation of the main character drives the story forward.

 

name of the windOf course, one of the best things about unreliable narration is its power to create amazing characters. And not just the psychos of storyville, like Humbert Humbert. As previously mentioned, boasters also make up a huge number of unreliable narrators. Perfect for this time of year, I’d suggest the very atmospheric Name of the Wind. Kvothe, in my opinion, seems to warp some of the narrative to appear larger than life. Strong characterisation, in turn, is a powerful way to create voice.

woman in the windowIt can also be used to create another dimension to the story. This is exemplified in Woman in the Window, where it’s evident from the start that the main character has secrets and is slowly revealed through her backstory. We then come to see how parts of the narration were unreliable.

 

rebeccaStructurally, this also creates other sides to the story. Books with unreliable narration can often incorporate flashbacks for instance. Or unreliable clues might be given through suspicious characters in the story- such as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. This can create a fantastic Russian Doll effect of hiding clues within the story. Which leads me onto my main pro…

confessionsIt turns the reader into a detective. It can be brilliant fun trying to figure out where the truth lies and piecing together that oh, hang on a minute, this narrator has been taking me for a ride. Dodgy actions (it dawning on the reader that a character that commits murder isn’t to be trusted), unclear accounts (what’s not included can be a massive hint that something’s up) and the reactions of other characters can all help us figure this out (critic Nunning also explores the signs of unreliable narration in more depth). We can also find ourselves to be victims of a savagely dishonest narrator- which lends to a scary feel- such as in Confessions of a Justified Sinner or even Yellow Wallpaper. Yet, what’s great about both of those, is that we can’t be sure that in either of those everything we’ve been told was untrue. Which brings me to the fact that…

turn of the screw 2Unreliable narrators can create a sense of ambiguity. A lot of the time, we may be left wondering if they were reliable at all, and if they were, how unreliable were they? This can lead to a great deal of uncertainty- which lends to an uncanny feel and can be an excellent way to create mood. The Turn of the Screw is one of the best examples of this technique in action- we never get an answer to whether the book is supernatural or not. Being on uneven ground can be one of the most potent devices for scary stories. Nonetheless, there are some drawbacks to this.

Cons:

Atonement_(novel)On the flipside, placing the reader on unsure footing can put some readers off. Some people might want clear answers and be dissatisfied if the story is left open-ended. And while it can make some standout characters, it can also make for some truly detestable mcs, like Briony in Atonement. Naturally, unreliable narrators don’t belong in every story or genre- readers might dislike being taken advantage of by a peculiar twist. In fact, if it does feel out of place, it can feel cheap.

Accounting for Different Tastes

As you might be able to tell, I struggled with the cons section. Obviously, this technique isn’t great if misused and I know some people aren’t keen on some specific books that use this technique- but I find it hard to see why anyone would be wholly against it. Personally, I see it as a way of showing how complex people are. It doesn’t help that I’m often overly suspicious and *always* suspect first person narrators of something- after all, didn’t House teach us:

everybody lies house

That’s why I can be dissatisfied with books where I expect there to be an unreliable narrator and they aren’t (which may or may not be a teaser for my next review 😉 ). So while I understand that people don’t necessarily like reading from the perspective of shitty people or might be scared off the genres they’re in, I’m curious to hear why some people might not like this at all and would love to hear some reasons why people hate it.

So I’ll pass the question off to you- do you like or dislike unreliable narrators? And if you’re a fan, who are some of your favourite unreliable narrators? Let me know in the comments!

The Need for Darkness in Books

thoughts orangutan

Since the dawn of literary criticism, there have always been people complaining that books are too dark. Explorations of suicide and mental health in Jude the Obscure and The Sorrows of Young Werther were condemned. Violence in fairy tales was wiped out for centuries and sanitised into Disney-approved remakes. Even themes of death in Hans Christian Anderson’s work were deemed too hopeless for children by the likes of Bettelheim (“The Struggle for Meaning”. The Classic Fairy Tales). HOWEVER there is one subject I increasingly see bashed in books- and that is the presence of bad parents. Now this is not the first– and probably won’t be the last- time I feel compelled to address this topic. Yet that’s because I continually see people arguing for fewer representations of bad parents. Not for more good parents mind- but to get rid of the quote-un-quote abusive parents “trope”.

This. is. not. cool.

Let me get one thing straight: it’s perfectly fine to have limits on what you, as an individual, are able to stomach. Everyone is entitled to consume whatever media or art they wish. However, one thing I think people should be clear on is that not all stories are pretty. Sometimes stories are harsh. Sometimes they are violent. And sometimes they even involve abuse. This is part of the human experience after all.

Two major misconceptions about a lot of abuse stories that I hear is that they’re somehow rare or that their portrayal is “unrealistic”. And my reaction to that is always *wow*- cos people making this criticism don’t realise how unbelievably douchy they sound when they say that. *Shocker*, but it’s kind of awful to complain that you don’t like reading about abusive parents or any other real life horror in books because (and I’m gonna paraphrase the sort of thing I hear a lot) “it’s not my experience”. Well, guess what? It’s *a lot* of people’s experience. I never talk about this on here, but I actually worked for a youth charity for a while and you wouldn’t believe some of the shocking real life stories I’ve heard. And you don’t have to take my word for it either- not only is there a wealth of personal accounts out there, we can also look at the statistics for things that can cause a bad home life. For instance, the percentage of children suffering some form of abuse in the UK is one in five. That is not a low number by any stretch of the imagination. Add in any other issue a child might encounter at home- bereavement, divorce (approx 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce), economic problems- and you’re looking at a much higher percentage of children experiencing complicated issues. When you think about it this way, it’s no wonder that so many books feature at least one of the above.

cinder and ellaIt’s especially significant to explore such stories, as people who have experienced these situations might find such stories empowering. A great number of novels in this area are very much about discovering bravery and overcoming these obstacles. Stories like Cinderella hold sway for huge numbers of people because they are actually about *empowering* a victim to take control of their life. I actually just watched a fantastic video on how Cinderella frees herself from her abusers- which you can check out here. What can be cool in modern retellings, particularly Cinder and Ella, is the way they explore more modern issues of blended families and complex issues for antagonism towards the heroine. Regardless of the issue, it’s so important to note that there’s an educational element to these stories. We as readers incorporate aspects of that knowledge into our real lives and can learn how to face our biggest fears through books. Darkness, particularly in children’s books, emphasises that meaning is found in life through overcoming difficult circumstances. And as everyone knows, there can be no real catharsis in a story without that.

Alice's_Adventures_in_WonderlandPersonally, I believe that real life friction is a fantastic way to create that sense of tension. Far more so than defeating some faceless, evil entity, there is an educational aspect in characters defeating something more human. Unfortunately, we have to recognise that people are the ones to do evil things. It’s why I am often less drawn to the dehumanised villains (aka the Voldemorts of the world) and far more to the ones with real motivations and human flaws (eg the Dursleys). Sure, I appreciate a good Jaberwocky every now and again, but give me a Red Queen if you want me to be truly terrified.

harry potter and the half blood princeFacing such evils can be hugely character defining. A character working their way through extreme circumstances can give the individual an opportunity to grow and develop. We all know that one of the most satisfying parts of a book can be watching a character evolve. What is brilliant is watching a character be presented with choices and having to find the right path. To draw on Harry Potter again, Harry mirrors both Voldemort and Snape in his miserable background. Yet while they both go on to be baddies- a villain and anti-hero respectively- Harry overcomes his difficult upbringing and becomes the hero that saves the world. Even better, Dudley Dursley gets a redemptive story arc- he too was a product of bad parenting and yet he has to do the arguably more difficult thing of showing remorse for his actions (even if it wasn’t entirely his fault to begin with). In this way, Rowling has given us possibilities of how people can react to negative circumstances. And not only that, she’s given us a clear signpost in the right direction.

the hate u giveThis is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t celebrate positive role models, but that there has to be room in books to explore some of the darker sides of life. I often see that it’s about balance. When you have, for instance, a story as emotionally fraught as, say, The Hate U Give, it makes perfect sense to me that the book has *fantastic* parent role models (not just the parents, but also the uncle!) In part, it’s just great to have that kind of rep in a book, but also I think it speaks to the strength of the author’s intuitive storytelling style. Too often I see books on hard subjects overladen with horror. Sometimes a novel can have no redemptive features or hint of hope- and that can be too much for a reader. So of course I’m not saying “*only darkness* in books please”- instead consider that sometimes there is a need for at least *some* darkness in books.

Phew- I know that wasn’t exactly the most cheerful topic I’ve covered, but I believe it was a necessary one. What do you think? Do you think there’s room to explore dark topics- especially abusive parents- in books? Let me know in the comments!